STARFISH IS A STUNNING MIXTAPE OF GENRES UNLIKE ANYTHING OUT THERE
Think what you will of H.P. Lovecraft as a person, his work has inspired countless filmmakers and storytellers. But as much as I love his writing, the one thing his stories always lack are deeply personal characters. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see films like Starfish taking his themes and doing something unique and beautiful with them.
We’ve seen this a few times before, with films like the romance-horror hit, Spring, but Starfish is something else entirely. The feature debut of writer/director A.T. White, Starfish is the intimate portrayal of Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), as she attempts to run away from the world and her actions by hiding out in her best friend Grace’s (Christina Masterson) apartment soon after her death. There, she deals with the loss and pain of her own guilt, all of which happens to coincide with the end of the world as we know it.
I’m amazed that this is White’s first feature. I feel like I’m saying that about a lot of genre directors these days, which is incredible, but it’s true. Starfish is an emotional, honest journey of one woman’s confrontation with death and depression, and there wasn’t one moment where I wasn’t completely entranced by Aubrey’s story. Gardner is an enchanting actress. She delivers such a raw, personal performance, that it’s easy to fall in love with her character. Almost all of us can probably relate to teenage years where we wanted to run away from the world the way Aubrey is, with the soundtrack of our favorite bands soothing us to sleep on the worst nights. Or maybe you didn’t do that, I don’t know, fuck you. Starfish is like an Alaskan set Silent Hill, following Aubrey as she is haunted by the ghosts of her past, and the very real monsters of her present. Gardener is completely on her own in this film, yet she is powerful enough to carry us along on her sad journey alone.
And Starfish is, if anything else, a tragic film. Set to a heartwarming score composed by White himself, the soundtrack in this film might as well be a character itself. Sound is huge in Starfish. Throughout the film, Aubrey finds herself recovering tapes left behind by Grace, some of which contain music and an alien “signal” which is as mesmerizing as it is haunting. These little pieces of Grace become one of Aubrey’s only connections to the outside world, other than a voice she occasionally communicates with through radio. Each one brings on a different experience, or memory, lulling Aubrey into a trance the same way it does to the audience. Music can make or break a film for me. It’s an unspoken connection between us and the characters, and White’s score is so exquisitely strange, you’ll feel as if you’re right there inside Aubrey’s head, listening to the sound of her pain, and her plea for forgiveness over the things she has done to get to this point.
The loneliness of White’s film is emphasized not only by the score, but by the cinematography as well. Cinematographer Alberto Banares sets the scene well, as we’re given subtle hints of chaos when Aubrey walks through town, showing the viewer some bloodied glass from inside a shop, unbeknownst to Aubrey. Banares captures Aubrey in various, awe-inspiring wide-shots that truly make Aubrey seem like she is the only person left alive in the world, but instead of feeling scary, it’s actually quite peaceful. White and Banares are extremely imaginative together with the imagery. One shot stands out, which has Aubrey masturbating on the couch, staring up at a polished wood ceiling, where she sees the translucent image of a tattooed couple fucking. There is something so profoundly intimate about the shot, that it stayed burned into my mind long after the credits rolled. Hell, Banares is so good at what he does, there’s even a meta moment in the film in which Aubrey finds a slate with the “Starfish” title and Banares’ name on it. Whatever the reason for that is, it’s obvious that Banares’ work is vital to the success of Starfish.
A lot of horror fans will be disappointed to realize that Starfish isn’t exactly horrific, despite its premise. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of suspenseful terror. In fact, Starfish is such a peaceful film, it lulls you into a sweet, dreamlike state before unexpectedly shocking your pants off. The more frightening scenes in this film are few and far between, but when they hit, they hit hard, in particular one gruesome image of a man missing his face. Like the popular 2014 film, Spring, Starfish is more of a dystopian, Lovecraftian drama with a tinge of horror.
Of course, that horror comes from the creatures roaming the streets of the snowy purgatory which Aubrey has found herself in. These creatures are fantastically frightening, looking as if they have stepped straight out of Lovecraft’s “Dagon”. There’s also quite a bit of variety with the monsters as well. Aubrey runs into everything from small fish-men, to monstrosities as tall as skyscrapers that invoke memories of The Mist. Sadly, though understandably, these creatures are done mostly in CG, but that doesn’t make them any less stunning. The one problem with the beasts is that they often don’t feel like much of a threat. Aubrey has an easy time hiding from them, most of the time finding herself in a memory while she hides, only to snap out of it and have the creature be gone. Similar to Gareth Edwards 2010 film, Monsters, the creatures of Starfish are meant to inspire and be appreciated, not to terrify. Which works to a degree. I get that Starfish is supposed to feel like a dream, but Aubrey’s lack of fear in her situation takes a little too much of the tension out of the film, which slows the pacing down and may make it seem too slow for more casual fans.
But again, Starfish is not simply a horror film. White’s movie is a mixtape of genre, a perfect blending of cinematic styles (including a gorgeous scene done in anime). Aubrey’s journey is like peeking into the journal of a friend. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes scary, and always poetic, Starfish is an intelligent film made by a filmmaker who clearly loves movies, for fans who love movies. It’s no coincidence that one place which Aubrey finds solace in is the local movie theater. I’m not exaggerating when I say you haven’t seen anything like Starfish. This film is White’s personal love letter to film, and depending on how this already stacked year goes, Starfish may very well end up on the best of the year playlist by the time 2019 comes to a close.